The Complete Guide to a Low-Carb Vegan Diet — Diet Doctor (2023)

  1. What is a vegan diet?
  2. Combining vegan and low carb
  3. Top five tips
  4. Foods to eat
  5. Foods to avoid
  6. Vegan substitutions
  7. Meeting nutrition needs
  8. Dining out
  9. Summary

At Diet Doctor, we believe everyone, no matter their dietary patterns, should be given the opportunity and information needed to live their healthiest, low-carb life.

For practicing vegans — who may have wondered whether they can realistically maintain their lifestyle while eating low carb or keto — we’re here to tell you that it is absolutely possible.

With the right approach — and when following reliable advice — you can adhere to a vegan diet, which typically excludes all animal products, including dairy and eggs, while also eating low carb or keto.

For more information on how you can successfully combine veganism and low carb into one healthy, sustainable diet, keep reading.

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What is a vegan diet?

A vegan diet contains no animal products. Unlike some vegetarians, vegans don’t eat eggs or dairy products. Those on a vegan diet also avoid animal-based ingredients like gelatin, which is made from bones and hides.

Is being “plant-based” or vegetarian the same as being vegan? Not always. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they mean different things.

Also, a vegan or vegetarian diet is not automatically a nutritious diet. For instance, white bread, cane sugar, refined flour crackers, and desserts can all be vegan or vegetarian.

Definitions of plant-based diets vary. Although they all focus on vegetables and other plants, some may include small amounts of animal foods.1

People typically choose a plant-based way of eating for health, environmental, or ethical reasons.2 For some or all of these same reasons, vegans do not use animal products, including clothing and other items made from animals, like wool, leather, or suede.

Why combine vegan and low carb?

Eating both low carb and vegan may sound strange at first. Vegan diets have no animal products and may be relatively low in fat while being high in carbs. Keto or low-carb diets typically include animal products and provide plenty of fat with very few carbs.

But you can stay vegan while experiencing the benefits of living a low-carb life. One of these benefits is feeling less hungry, which can lead to greater weight loss compared to other diets.3

Other low-carb benefits are better control of diabetes and insulin resistance, blood pressure reduction, and many others you can read about in our guide to the science of low carb.4

Note: We don’t think that eating animal products is necessarily unhealthy. You can learn more about this in our guides to red meat, dairy, and saturated fat. However, we do want to help everyone, whether or not they choose to eat animal products

.

Research on low-carb vegan diets

Well-planned vegan diets based on nutritious whole foods can provide adequate protein and most – although not all – of the vitamins and minerals needed for good health.5

Do a quick search online and you’ll see inspirational stories from people who successfully follow a low-carb or keto vegan lifestyle, including one from spine surgeon Carrie Diulus, who has type 1 diabetes.

But, except for a two-part clinical trial that explored an “Eco-Atkins” approach, low-carb vegan diets haven’t been studied much.

In that study’s initial four-week phase, 47 overweight people with high cholesterol levels were randomly assigned to follow either a lower-carb vegan diet or a higher-carb vegetarian diet that included eggs and dairy.

Both groups were calorie-restricted, and although weight loss was similar, the lower-carb group had greater reductions in heart disease risk factors. Another plus: people in the lower-carb vegan group seemed happier with their diet.6

During the second part of the study, each group was allowed to eat as much of the permitted foods as they wanted. At the end of six months, the lower-carb vegan group had lost slightly more weight, raised their HDL cholesterol, and lowered their LDL cholesterol and triglycerides more than the higher-carb vegetarian group.7

Like many nutrition trials, this was a fairly small study with a high dropout rate. Also, the lower-carb group wasn’t that low carb; daily intake averaged about 100 and 140 grams of carbs in the first phase and second phases, respectively. But the results show following a low-carb vegan diet is possible and may help improve certain heart disease risk factors.

Top five tips for a low-carb vegan diet

  1. Protein
  2. Carbs
  3. Fats
  4. Nutrient density
  5. B12

If you’re eager to find out what to eat on a low-carb vegan diet, check out our complete food list. But don’t forget to come back to this section before starting your low-carb vegan lifestyle.

The hardest part of being on a low-carb vegan diet is meeting all your essential nutrition needs.

But don’t worry. We’ve put together our top five tips for getting started.

1. Prioritize protein

Getting enough protein is essential, and on a vegan diet, it’s even more important, because protein quality matters as much as quantity.

Here’s why. After you eat, your body breaks down the protein from your food into amino acids, the “building blocks” of protein. Although there are 20 amino acids found in protein, 9 are essential, meaning they must come from your diet because your body can’t make them.

Protein from animals is “complete,” providing all the essential amino acids in amounts your body needs. But plant proteins (with the exception of soy and nutritional yeast) are “incomplete,” because they lack sufficient amounts of one or more essential amino acid.8

The good news? Combining different types of plants can provide all the essential amino acids in the amounts required.

The bad news? Reducing carbs means limiting several food combinations that provide “complete” protein. For example, vegan diets often pair legumes like beans or peas – high in the amino acid lysine but low in another, methionine – with grains that are high in methionine but low in lysine. Carb-heavy combos like these aren’t a good fit for a low-carb diet.

Check out our low-carb vegan protein sources to choose high-quality protein without overdoing carbs.

Now for “quantity.” Aim for higher protein intake if you’re getting your protein from plant sources.

Plant-based proteins are less easily digested and absorbed by the body compared to animal proteins.9 For this reason, you may need more protein if you follow a vegan diet compared to a non-vegan diet.

Soy protein is comparable to animal protein in terms of quality and digestibility, while other plant proteins vary. Vegans who consume soy regularly may not need much more protein than those who eat animal products, while those who avoid it may need approximately 30% more.10

You can learn more about the differences in plant and animal protein quality in our podcast covering this issue.

How much protein do you need on a low-carb vegan diet? Use the simple chart below to find out what your minimum daily protein target should be, based on your height.11

At Diet Doctor, we recommend that most people aim for 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilo of reference body weight. The goal below represents the middle of that recommended protein intake range.

Minimum daily protein target

HeightWomenMen
Under 5’4″ ( < 163 cm) 90 grams 105 grams
5’4″ to 5’7″ (163 to 170 cm) 100 grams 110 grams
5’8″ to 5’10” (171 to 178 cm) 110 grams 120 grams
5’11” to 6’2″ (179 to 188 cm) 120 grams 130 grams
Over 6’2″ (188 cm +) 130 grams 140 grams

It’s also important to spread your protein throughout the day instead of eating most of it in one sitting. That’s because your body uses protein best when you eat a minimum of 20 grams at a time, though you probably don’t need more than 35 grams.12

Is there a maximum amount of protein your body can absorb at one time? Although that amount isn’t agreed upon by all nutrition experts, in order to meet your protein needs with plants, aim for about 25-35 grams at each meal.13

Our list of low-carb vegan protein foods shows you how to get the right amounts of the right kinds of plant protein.

2. Count your carbs

Which is healthier and easier to follow long term: a low-carb vegan diet or a keto vegan diet?

Although keto vegan diets are popular, they don’t allow much flexibility. For some, eating this way all the time can make it difficult to meet essential nutrition needs. A low-carb vegan diet, as opposed to a vegan keto diet, includes more foods — such as beans and other legumes — making it easier to get the nutrition you need and stick with this plan long term.14

Most vegan diets are high in carbs because they include lots of grains and legumes. By contrast, a low-carb vegan diet can provide anywhere from 30-100 grams of net carbs per day, depending on how strict you want or need to be. 15

Keto vegan tofu scramble

Feel free to include keto meals like our vegan tofu scramble or even full keto days on a regular basis if you desire! If you have diabetes or want to lose weight, aim for less than 50 grams of net carbs most days in order to maximize results.16

If you don’t have diabetes, you can experiment with eating different amounts of carbs until you figure out what works best for you.

3. Eat healthy fats

On a low-carb diet, fat provides most of your calories, and a vegan version is no exception. In fact, another name for your new way of eating could be low-carb, high-fat vegan, or LCHF vegan.

Unlike protein and carbs, we typically don’t specify how many grams of fat you should consume. Instead, we recommend adding enough fat at each meal to feel satisfied but not stuffed.

You can enjoy several healthy, tasty plant fats on a LCHF vegan diet, including olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, and coconut oil or cream. Cocoa butter, found in chocolate, is great too.

Even though they’re plant-based, we don’t recommend using a lot of vegetable and seed oils because they’re usually highly processed. Try to choose natural fats from this list most of the time.

4. Choose nutrient-dense plants

Where should your carbs come from?

Remember, you’ll already get some carbs in your vegan protein sources. The rest should come from a wide variety of above-ground vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some berries. These foods provide important vitamins and minerals, along with fiber to fill you up. Plus, they taste absolutely delicious when paired with healthy fats!

Here are a few low-carb plants providing some of the vitamins and minerals vegan diets often lack:

  • Hemp seeds: A great source of zinc and omega-3 fatty acids; 1 gram of net carb per ounce (28 grams)
  • Sesame seeds: Rich in calcium, iron, and zinc; 3 grams of net carbs per ounce (28 grams)
  • Spinach: This versatile veggie is high in calcium, iron, and zinc; 1 gram of net carb per 100 grams (3 ounces), cooked

Learn more about meeting your nutrient needs on a vegan diet in our guide below.

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